Abraham Lincoln: A Living Myth Comes to Life

Abraham Lincoln’s personal portfolio, 1861. Lincoln’s cabinet members had matching leather portfolios with their names stamped in gilt. Lincoln’s was saved from souvenir hunters on the night of his death by his son Robert. Courtesy of The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum

Abraham Lincoln’s personal portfolio, 1861. Lincoln’s cabinet members had matching leather portfolios with their names stamped in gilt. Lincoln’s was saved from souvenir hunters on the night of his death by his son Robert. Courtesy of The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.

 

Skirball Registrar, Cynthia Tovar holds Abraham Lincoln’s portfolio. Courtesy of The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.

Skirball Registrar, Cynthia Tovar holds Abraham Lincoln’s portfolio. Courtesy of The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.

I have worked in museums for close to twenty years and have visited them all over the world for longer than that. I have personally handled ancient pottery, figurines, weapons, furniture, and art objects—everything from Egyptian funerary relics to Civil War uniforms. While I won’t deny that I consider being able to have a hands-on relationship with these objects an extraordinary benefit of my career, I have to say that I am rarely “touched back” by them. However, when our registrars called me to let me know they were unpacking Abraham Lincoln’s valise for our “Lincoln Spotlight” exhibit, I knew this time was going to be different.

A task of our Museum registrars is the inspection and assessment of each object as it comes into our care (and as it leaves as well). Then we have to figure out the best way to display the object while protecting it from any further damage. On the surface there was nothing spectacular about Lincoln’s valise—it’s made of old leather that is quite worn and somewhat brittle and it lacks any decorative quality; it’s a utilitarian object meant to carry papers and books. Even having Lincoln’s name stamped on the front is not that interesting in and of itself. However, knowing that it most likely once carried the Emancipation Proclamation made it worth having here as part of the exhibit. At least that’s what I was thinking as I rode the elevator down to our Collections area to take a look.

page 1 of Positive Photostat of handwritten Emancipation Proclamation on four leaves, signed by Lincoln. Library of Congress, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Alfred Whital Stern Collection of Lincolniana.

Page 1 of Positive Photostat of handwritten Emancipation Proclamation on four leaves, signed by Lincoln. Library of Congress, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Alfred Whital Stern Collection of Lincolniana.

 

 

 

What I wasn’t prepared for was how deeply moved I was as I watched the portfolio be unwrapped. In that instant, Abraham Lincoln became a real human being to me, rather than a “living myth.”

The Man Behind the Myth

My earliest recollection of the personage of Lincoln was the penny in my loafers—that face on the coin that fit into my shoe. Of course, my impression of him changed somewhat once school started and I learned that he had been my president.

Not long afterwards, my hometown of Safety Harbor, Florida, held a beard-growing contest. Continue reading

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Revolutionary Aquarians: Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin

While putting together our classic film series highlighting the significance of the U.S. Constitution as a living document, I happened to notice that two “game changers” in history have the same birthday: on February 12, 1809, both Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin were born. Coincidence or not? I am not usually one to read into horoscopes, but according to the Zodiac, Aquarians (Lincoln and Darwin’s sign) are considered to be forward-thinking leaders and revolutionaries. Undoubtedly, Lincoln’s and Darwin’s steadfast and unorthodox perspectives have changed the way we see our world, and both men have inspired Americans to utilize the Constitution as a living document.

The Lincoln Spotlight is on view now through February 17.

Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth president of the United States, was elected during a tumultuous time in U.S. history. He fought to unify the country throughout the Civil War and outlawed the institution of slavery with the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment. A lesser known fact about Lincoln, as highlighted in the Skirball’s current “Lincoln Spotlight” exhibition—on view in conjunction with Creating the United States—is that he also advocated for the rights of Jewish Americans. Leading up to and during the Civil War, as anti-Semitism ran rampant, Lincoln steadfastly asserted the rights of Jewish soldiers and citizens. The same month that he declared the Emancipation Proclamation (January 1863), he also renounced Ulysses S. Grant’s General Order No. 11 of 1862, which banned Jews from certain areas of the States and prohibited them from serving in the army alongside their fellow citizens. Furthermore, Lincoln made a point of appointing a number of Jewish generals to his Union forces. Again, an unpopular stance in the nineteenth century that laid the groundwork for other social and political revolutionaries to come.

Charles Darwin was a nineteenth-century British scientist best known for his theory of evolution. Continue reading

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Schoolhouse Rock Turns the Big 4-0

This Schoolhouse Rock film “Preamble” makes viewing the Constitution in Creating the United States
that much more meaningful and fun.

The suite of exhibitions and programs we’re currently presenting at the Skirball under the thematic umbrella Democracy Matters has gotten me thinking about the way I learned some of the fundamentals of American history and government as a kid in the 1970s.

Growing up in San Diego, I was light years away from Washington D.C. and all those historic sites of colonial wars and document signings—and from the key museums and libraries that house the most noteworthy foundational documents. Instead I learned the basics of American history primarily from a series of short animated music videos that aired as interstitial programs on ABC: Schoolhouse Rock (which turns forty today according to the Washington Post and NPR)!

Come now, all you forty-somethings out there. Didn’t many of you, too, learn the Preamble to the Constitution from a Schoolhouse Rock film with an unbelievably catchy tune sung by Lynn Ahrens… Continue reading

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